What the Fire Gave Me
They’re coming for me in the morning. I’ve got some time until then, I’d judge it five or six hours by the light. Time enough to think. How I came to be here, where I might be bound for after. I hope there is an after. Maybe I’ll see Tommy again. Lord, let me see Tommy again. If I reach out my hand, I can feel his cheek soft under my fingertips. If I close my eyes I can feel him holding me, lying in the grass to watch the sun set behind the hill. My Tommy. We weren’t foolish, but we were unlucky – it happens – and when it happened to us we never thought it would matter. We had a plan. Put money by for a license and a place to live, quick as we could, and then we could be wed. People might start counting back, gossip for a time, but it would die down soon enough. We had all kinds of plans, me and Tommy, used to dream up the future lying on the hillside. They made us so happy, those plans. It’s strange it should hurt so much to think on them now. I try to think of other things instead. I’ve been using the bricks in the wall to note how long I’ve been here. Today’s brick is in the second row down. Day 27. It has a line running through it, darker grey than the rest. It seems almost too obvious an omen. If I stand in the middle of my cell with my arms stretched out I can touch the sides with both hands. It’s longer the other way, long enough for me to lie down flat, but if I do there’s only a foot to spare. It’s a Margaret-sized room, just like a coffin. It seems to have been built to contain me. I wish I had the power they accuse me of. If I was a witch I could bring back Tommy, and the baby. I could conjure up a place for us to live, away from all this. Somewhere we could be left alone. That would be nice.
We’d tried our best, but we weren’t going to have enough money before I started to show. We were getting desperate, which is why he did it. Poor Tommy. He should have talked to me, told me what he was going to do. I was always the one who made the plans, and for good reason. He never was the sharpest, my Tommy, but he loved us so much. I loved him so much. They’re easy buildings to get into, churches – they keep the doors open for any who might have need of them. It might make you wonder why more things don’t get stolen, if all that fancy stuff is so easy to reach. It turns out, as Tommy should have guessed, that church candlesticks are impossible to sell. No pawnbroker with the slightest ounce of selfpreservation is going to side with a hungry-looking thatcher’s son over the Church. It was very, very easy to trace the candlesticks back to our parish, and then Tommy was in real trouble because the second thing he hadn’t thought of was how angry the Church gets when you steal from them. Except in this case they weren’t angry. They were far, far worse. Anger might have been all right. Anger that meant the stocks, even a fine. We’d have survived that. But Tommy didn’t get anger. He got mercy
When I was twelve years old, a sickness went around our little town. It took a lot of people, my mother and father among them. It also took the baker’s daughter, so they needed an extra pair of hands. It was hard work, but it was distracting, and as it got easier I found I didn’t need so much distraction anyway. They were good folk, Mr. Thompson and his wife – they fed me and clothed me, and on Sundays after church Mrs. Thompson taught me my letters. And after my reading lesson they would both fall asleep before the fire, and I would sneak out to meet Tommy. I would climb up out of our town and into the hills, and he would step out of the woods and meet me on the path. We would walk through the valley or sit by the river, watch the sun set. It was so lovely up there, and it felt like ours alone. When the sun shone you’ve never seen grass greener, or sky bluer. The light on the water was more beautiful than any rich lady’s jewels. I would sit by the river, letting the water run through my fingers while Tommy talked to me, and it would feel like home. I always felt at home near water. Even when the sky was grey there was a grace to the way the colours muted. As if the green of the grass and the orange of the leaves were mourning the sun. It was all we had, that valley, but it was ours. Our little world, bounded by a ring of hills. And now Tommy’s far, far away from their cradle-safety, and I’m trapped right in the middle and can’t see the sky.
They said it wasn’t Tommy’s fault. They said they understood his reasons, that he was a young lad with a future that shouldn’t be taken away from him. They said it was clear what had happened. Tommy had been seduced by a wicked girl, with no morals and no decency, and stealing the candlesticks showed honour and responsibility. I felt the anger rising up inside me when I heard that, a hot, rushing feeling. I felt like screaming. I felt like dragging them up to our hillside, showing them the setting sun, asking them how that could ever be wicked. The fury flooded me, the way they tried to twist it with official words and make it wrong. He tried to tell them, but they wouldn’t listen. He told them how he loved me, he loved us, we had plans. He said he was sorry for the candlesticks. He even said he’d pay a fine, though I’ve no notion where we would have found the money. They just laughed, fatherly, as if Tommy were pretending in order to save my face. They didn’t believe him, and it burned inside me. They sent him away to the navy, signed to a ship from Liverpool. He wrote for a while – well, he’d tell someone what it was he wanted written, and they’d put it down for me. The ports they stopped at, sights and sounds, new lands and people. Ship routines, and the smell of the sea. I’ve never seen the sea. I’m hardly like to now. He would tell me how much he missed us. They were never regular, those letters, so I didn’t know anything was wrong until they cornered me in the town square. Five lads. I’d seen them around before, labourers on one of the farms, come into town to find some entertainment on their afternoon off. They came towards me from all sides, and I didn’t know what was happening until they were in a wall before me. I was confused at first, tried to get past them. One of them shoved me back, and then the jeering started. Dead man’s whore, they called me. I didn’t understand – what dead man? They told me how the ship had gone down, no survivors, how they had overheard it from a traveller who stopped in the inn. How it meant that I was truly on my own. ‘No,’ I said. ‘No, no,’ over and over. It was all I could say. It was all I could feel, a resounding negative, the only response to the sudden shattering of the world. They kept calling me names, but I barely heard. I was trying to sink deep inside my ‘no’, sure that if I denied their words long enough they would cease to be true. Perhaps my quiet was a spark to them. They started hitting me. I think one of them had a stick – I’m not sure. When they tired of hitting me they wandered off, as if it had meant nothing, leaving me lying in the mud alone. It wasn’t until I got back to the bakery that I realised it wasn’t just mud soaking my legs. The Thompsons threw me out after that – they said they couldn’t stand the shame. They had turned a blind eye to the pregnancy, but a public scene like that was a step too far. As if they had been the ones hurt. As if they had been the ones blinded by tears and mud and blood and pain. As if they had had to bury – anything. I’ll not go there, not even in my own mind. I buried the memory as well. It was Mrs. Waverley who took me in. She’d just had her baby, and she said she needed help around the house. Mr. Waverley didn’t seem to like it, but while he did not share his wife’s kindness for strays he loved her enough to humour it. I can understand why he did what he did. There wasn’t much I could do in the way of housework for the first few weeks, but I could sit in a corner with the mending and fix up hems and tears. It felt nice to be able to fix something. It was a while before I could help with the baby. It was a while before I could even look at the baby. They said I was jealous of Mrs. Waverley. Jealous because she had a baby and I didn’t. Of course I was jealous. They were so happy, the three of them, a proper little family. Like we should have been. But I never would have hurt them. Mrs. Waverley was so kind to me, and Mr. Waverley was never worse than indifferent. I even loved the baby – Catherine, she was called. Day by day it got easier to be around her. She was a lovely baby, but she never was very strong. She used to gurgle at me and swipe at my hair. I used to sing her the songs I would have sung to our baby. I cannot understand why they would think I could hurt her. How anyone could have hurt her. But then, grief can fog your mind in funny ways. She started losing weight, the baby, and then the coughing started. She stopped her gurgling laugh, and even when she cried it hadn’t force anymore. The paler and thinner she got, the paler and thinner Mrs. Waverley got – she used to spend her whole day rocking in the chair holding the baby, and I would rush around the house. I would cook and clean and mend, pick herbs for Mrs. Waverley and the baby. They said I resented it, the work I had to do. When the baby died, Mrs. Waverley stopped talking. I can’t blame Mr. Waverley, truly I can’t. He wanted someone to blame, and I understand that, I do. But the magistrate wasn’t struck blind by grief. He hadn’t lost anything, and he was in no pain. He had no reason, no reason at all to accept the stricken accusations of a man trying to find some answer for his suffering. No reason to put words in my mouth, resentment and jealousy, arrest me and throw me in here, none that I can see. No reason not to believe me. No reason other than that this cell was the only place he could think of to put me. People used to look at me out of the corner of their eye at the market – I think they thought I wasn’t ashamed enough. A fallen woman, with no business holding her head up in public or being treated with respect by decent people like the Waverleys. I hadn’t a place out there, so they’ve made me one of my very own. Perfectly Margaret-sized.
I can hear footsteps. Loud footsteps, and clattering keys. Men I’ve known my whole life. Will Taverner, the smith, and John Pollock who runs the inn. We don’t have real guards in our little town – there’s not ever anyone or anything as needs guarding. I wonder if the magistrate has sent these two men, built like walls the both of them, to scare me, or because they themselves are scared. Because suddenly I’m scared. I back away into the furthest corner of my cell, try to shrink into the stones, and they advance on me, seize an arm each and drag me from the place that suddenly seems a safe haven. In the square they’ve built a stake, a huge nest of wood with a post rising from the middle. I can feel the wind on my face, scarce though it might be, and a small part of me is thankful, even now. I look up at Taverner, then Pollock, and that’s when I realise it for sure – they’re scared of me. Even though there’s nothing I could do to them. Tommy and the baby, the boys in the square, Mrs. Waverley – it’s all boiling up inside me. The anger helps a little – enough to show Taverner a savage, leery snarl. The look of fear flickering across his face brings me a bite of satisfaction, and it washes through my chest even as they shove me down and I fall hard, scudding my hands on the ground. I turn them over and see ribbons of blood and flecks of gravel. It hurts a lot for something that can’t possibly matter, considering what my last moments will hold. I can feel my pulse in the palms of my hands. When they haul me back up again I try to struggle, kick out and spit, but they don’t seem to feel it. ‘Let me go!’ I yell. ‘Taverner, please – Pollock – let me go, let me GO!’ It feels like someone has built a fire inside me, but there’s nowhere for the smoke to get out. They lift me onto the platform, tie me tight to the stake. I can feel it splintery against my wrists. I open my mouth again to yell, but Pollock cuffs me hard about the ear. It seems he’s remembered that even witches can be hurt like other women. Father McCarthy is walking across the square, the crowd parting before him like the Red Sea. He’s wearing his best vestments, the ones with the golden edging, and it’s catching in the sun. He starts chanting, holding the prayer book out before him like a barrier between us. Father McCarthy, who I’ve known my whole life, who baptised me and buried my parents. Father McCarthy who would have wed me and Tommy. He comes to stand before my stake, alongside the magistrate. It looks like they’re attending me, like I’m some lady they have to bow before. It almost makes me laugh. The magistrate begins to speak. ‘Margaret Lorrimer, you stand accused of the crime of heresy. On the twenty-fifth day of the third month in the year of our lord 1524 you did use ungodly magic to curse the woman Waverley, killing her infant child. Your jealousy and your wantonness drove you into the path of Satan, and let your weakness be a lesson to all. Margaret Lorrimer, you have been found guilty of this heresy and are sentenced to die, by being burnt at the stake. Do you have anything to say for yourself?’ ‘I never did!’ I say. ‘Please, believe me, I swear to you I know no magic! I never hurt Mrs. Waverley, I’m not a witch, please! Believe me, why won’t you believe me?’ I’m shouting by the end, but it makes no difference. The faces in the crowd are smiling tightly, jeering, convinced of their own rightness, convinced they are making the world that bit better. They don’t believe me. They won’t believe me. They’ve decided what I am and what I deserve. Fear rushes through me, shortening my breath. I try to think of all the things witches can’t do. I dig my nails into my torn palms, feel the blood run over my fingers. I try to turn them outwards, struggling against my bonds, try to show my weakness. ‘I have no power, you have to believe me! I’m not a witch! Please, please, I beg of you, let me go!’ My voice is growing hoarse. I struggle against the ropes but they’re tied too well. Pulling at them only seems to make them tighter. With every plea, my voice rasps harsh against my throat. At the back of the square Taverner and Pollock are picking up torches. They light them and begin to walk. I summon a deep breath and make a last effort to prove myself. ‘Pater noster, qui es in caelis…’ But the smoke from the torches is curling towards me now, and the prayer dies in my throat. They reach the platform. I struggle against the ropes again, even though I know it won’t make any difference. I imagine my fury flowing through me and washing them away. It’s rising in me like a flood, this anger, consuming me, but I can’t move, can’t expel it anywhere. All I can do is throw my head back and scream. Taverner and Pollock hold their torches to the wood. The magistrate looks solemn, as if he is the one suffering from this ordeal. He closes his book. ‘Margaret Lorrimer, I sentence you to death. May God have mercy on your soul.’ The wood catches, the smoke rising until everything appears before me through a veil. I scream again, the only thing I can do now. I imagine my voice escaping my body, flying up and away, living a life of its own among the birds and the trees, up where the river ran swift and Tommy and I used to watch the sun set. I can see the hills, past the roofs of the town. I wonder if I’ll see Tommy again. Lord, let me see Tommy again. The flames are growing. They’re coming and there’s nothing I can do. The anger seems to have reached a new height – I’m shaking, and I’m certain it’s not from fear. I feel like I need to smash something, break something, to release this rising storm inside me. I only have one thing left to me. I scream, louder than even before, let it all go, throw everything I have to the wind. There’s a sound coming from outside the square. It’s loud, and getting louder; I can hear it clearly over the flames and the jeering. It’s a building, rushing sort of noise, and through the smoke I can see people in the crowd turning. I can feel the heat all around me like a cage. It shimmers before me. The flames have not reached me yet, but I feel as though I am burning all the same. It’s so hot. I don’t know if the water running down my face is sweat or tears. The noise is roaring now, getting closer. It seems to be pressing in on me, like the heat. A wall of water crashes into the square and something inside me breaks, breathes. The anger starts to fade, as though it’s found some way of escape. The water rushes into the crowd, flinging them asunder like dolls. It’s coming towards me, but it’s too late. The fire is at my feet, a pain so great I can’t even feel it. My whole body has become one with the flames. Around me people are screaming, scrambling for safety. I smile. I close my eyes.